February 29, 2008
Yes, they’re “retro.” Yes, they’ve been plowing a lot of the same ground since they first took the stage at CBGB in New York’s Bowery more than 30 years ago. And no, I’m not the first in criticdom to compare “First Date (Are You Coming On to Me?)” with the music of the Dave Clark Five.
But The Fleshtones, on their new album, Take a Good Look, attack their music with such strength, confidence, energy, and rock ’n’ roll joy that such reservations seem uptight and prissy.
Besides, I love the Dave Clark Five, so if “First Date” evokes fond memories of the DC5 version of “I Like It Like That,” it’s nothing but a plus. It makes me glad all over.
If you can’t name any hits by The Fleshtones, that’s because they never had any. Though mainstream success has eluded the members of this New York band for decades, their history is impressive.
Starting out in Queens in the mid-1970s, singer, harmonica blower, and keyboard man Peter Zaremba and guitarist Keith Streng took Nuggets-era fuzz tone and the Farfisa organ — which by that point in history had been missing in action for years and presumed dead — played it with punk-snot intensity, and created a signature sound they called “Super Rock.”
The Fleshtones lineup has stayed fairly steady all these years. Drummer Bill Milhizer has been with the group since 1980, while bassist Ken Fox joined in 1990. Though they’ve never been on the Billboard charts, The Fleshtones are the subject of a recent book, Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band.
Take a Good Look is full of songs that will fit naturally into The Fleshtones’ Super Rock repertoire. “Shiney Hiney” is raw defiance. “Ruby’s Old Time” is hot fun in the summertime. “Never Grew Up” is a pounding ode to extended adolescence.
Perhaps taking a cue from The Hives, “Jet Set Fleshtones” is a self-referential jewel. Built on an easy soul groove with a rumbling, fuzzy bass line, the song is an anthem for a traveling band.
“Going Back to School,” a nice plug for continuing education, reminds me a little of James Brown’s “Don’t Be a Drop Out.” However, The Fleshtones have the weird ability to take a socially responsible stance and make it sound menacing:
“When I go back to school/All the students gonna look at me /They’re
gonna wonder what I’m doing there/I got a lot to learn, so I don’t
Somehow you get the feeling that if these guys really went back to school, they’d still be juvenile delinquents.
Likewise, “Love Yourself” might sound like pop-psych pablum in the hands of lesser mortals. But this band makes self-respect sound tough and bitchin’.
One track shows a slight detour from the basic Fleshtones sound. “This Time Josephine” features a prominent acoustic guitar with Zaremba’s Farfisa-supplied Texy-Mexy fills (think The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”). The song has an early-’70s Kinks feel to it.
But the most impressive tune is the title song, which ends the album. It’s an organ-dominated “talking song” that sounds like a mutant grandson of The Standells' Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White.” It’s a protest song against “a time when ugliness rules”; gentrification; “hipster overspill”; and some “tattoo-covered, goatee-, sock-hat-wearin’ ” jerk who’s trying to move in on the singer’s girlfriend. The song ends with Zaremba screaming as the band plays on.
This is a short album by modern standards — just over a half-hour. But it packs a super punch.
* Two Headed Cow by Flat Duo Jets. A decade before the world heard of The White Stripes or The Black Keys, there was a loud, rowdy, blues-screamin’ duo from North Carolina called the Flat Duo Jets. With Dexter Romweber on guitar and vocals and Chris “Crow” Smith on drums, FDJ stripped rock ’n’ roll down to its basics.
The band broke up before the end of the last century, but just last year it was the subject of a documentary. This CD, released earlier this month, is a companion to that film. It’s a live show from 1986, but it sounds like it couln made in 1956 or last week.
“These are the damnedest people,” an unidentified announcer says in introducing the group. “You’ll have more sound coming off this stage than for any two people you’ll ever see in your life.”
Romweber and Smith immediately set out to prove him right. Kicking off the show with “Hoy Hoy,” a rockabilly workout originally done by The Collins Kids, the Jets set a dangerous energy level. (I have to say, however, I like the original much better. Take a look at the video below.)
Lots of songs here are familiar. The FDJ put a toughness into “Frog Went a Courtin’” that Burl Ives never imagined. And while Romweber is no match for Link Wray, this version of “Rawhide” is a spirited workout.
The group even pays tribute to the pride of Raton, The Fireballs, with a crazy, hopped-up rendition of the older group’s instrumental hit “Torquay.” The Jets prove they can do it slow and purdy too. “Burning Bridges” is a nice country ballad that finishes the set.
I didn’t pay much mind to this group when they were around. But this record makes me miss them.
Now dig those crazy Collins Kids!